Florida condo collapse: Death toll rises to 11, 150 still missing

Miami-Dade officials updated the death toll from a Thursday condo tower collapse in Surfside, Florida to 11 Monday afternoon with 150 people still missing as search and rescue efforts extended into their fifth day. 

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Monday afternoon that crews had made "significant progress" at the collapse site and have expanded their family assistance center which now has 14 different organizations working with family members to help get them through the tragedy. 

Cava also noted that 136 people had been accounted for as of Monday afternoon. 

A wing of the 12-story Champlain Towers came down around 1:30 a.m. on June 24 in the town of Surfside, located just north of Miami Beach. No one has been pulled alive from the rubble since hours after the collapse. 

Still, many held out hope of finding survivors. On Sunday, families of the missing rode buses to a site nearby from which they could watch teams at work, which included firefighters, sniffer dogs and search experts employing radar and sonar devices. Some families had hoped their visit would allow them to shout messages to loved ones possibly buried deep inside the pile.

The death toll also rose on Sunday as four more bodies were recovered. Authorities identified those additional four people as Leon Oliwkowicz, 80; Christina Beatriz Elvira, 74; Anna Ortiz, 46; and Luis Bermudez, 26. 

The tower has a mix of seasonal and year-round residents, and while the building keeps a log of guests, it does not keep track of when owners are in residence, local officials said. The missing are from several countries around the world, including Israel, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett on Monday shared about a tragic meeting with a young girl, about "11 or 12 years old," at the collapse site on Sunday night that "really brought it home to me." Burkett said one of her parents was in the building at the time of the collapse. 

"She was sitting in a chair by herself with nobody around her, looking at her phone," Burkett told reporters. "She was reading a Jewish prayer to herself, sitting at the site by where one of her parents presumably is."

"And she wasn’t crying. She was just lost. She didn’t know what to do, what to say, who to talk to," he continued. "We’re going to do the best we can to bring out that parent."

Personal belongings were evidence of shattered lives amid the wreckage of the Champlain, which was built in 1981. Many were moved by a children's bunk bed perched precariously on a top floor, bent but intact and apparently inches from falling into the rubble.

"Somebody was probably sleeping in it," Jimmy Patronis, the state’s fire marshal, told reporters on Friday. "There’s all those what-ifs."

Barry Cohen and his wife, who live in the condo, said they were asleep when they were awakened by a loud boom.

"We went to leave our apartment and we opened up the door from our apartment and there was a huge pile of rubble and dust — just havoc," Cohen told reporters last week.

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Miami-Dade Assistant Fire Chief Raide Jadallah explained that conditions at the site — the building pancaked when it fell — have frustrated crews looking for survivors. Alan Cominsky, chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, said his team is holding out hope of finding someone alive but must continue to move slowly and methodically.

"The debris field is scattered throughout, and it’s compact, extremely compact," he said, noting that teams must stabilize and shore up debris as they go.

"We can’t just go in and move things erratically, because that’s going to have the worst outcome possible," he said.

Among the tools rescuers used was a microwave radar device developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Department of Homeland Security that "sees" through up to 8 inches of solid concrete, according to Adrian Garulay, CEO of Spec Ops Group, which sells them. The suitcase-size device can detect human respiration and heartbeats and was being used Sunday by a seven-member search-and-rescue team from Mexico’s Jewish community.

Levine Cava said six to eight teams are actively searching the pile at any given time, with hundreds of team members on standby ready to rotate in. She said teams have worked around the clock since Thursday, and there was no lack of personnel. Crews spent Saturday night digging a trench that stretches 125 feet long, 20 feet across and 40 feet deep, which, she said, allowed them to find more bodies and human remains.

d8a3f892-Dozens Presumed Missing After Residential Building In Miami Area Partially Collapses

Search and Rescue teams look for possible survivors in the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 27, 2021, in Surfside, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden said in a statement he spoke with FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell about efforts on the ground after Criswell visited the site. Biden said his administration is prepared to provide assistance and support.

"This is an unimaginably difficult time for the families enduring this tragedy," Biden said. "My heart goes out to every single person suffering during this awful moment."

Earl Tilton, who runs a search-and-rescue consulting firm in North Carolina, said rushing into the rubble without careful planning and execution would injure or kill rescuers and the people they are trying to save.

"Moving the wrong piece of debris at the wrong time could cause it to fall" on workers and crush them, he said.

But Tilton agreed families were not wrong to continue holding out hope. He said during past urban rescues, rescuers have found survivors as long as a week past the initial catastrophe.

The building collapsed just days before a deadline for condo owners to start making steep payments toward more than $9 million in repairs that had been recommended nearly three years earlier. A 2018 engineering report warned of "major structural damage" to the Champlain Towers South building.

The report did not warn of imminent danger from the damage, and it still remained unclear if any of the damage observed was responsible for the collapse.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.